Fresno performed 20 lockouts over past week and a half. Tenants groups say Gavin Newsom is to blame.
Lori Waldman got lucky. She thought she and her 87-year-old father would be sleeping in her car tonight.
As recently as yesterday, the 58-year-old expected to be locked out of her apartment by Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies. The eviction notice they received last week said they had to be out by April 1. But Waldman didn’t know where they were supposed to go in the middle of a pandemic.
“I’m scared to death for my father because of his age,” said Waldman, who said she had been withholding rent from her landlord for months because of disagreements about various repairs. “I’m real worried about him.”
After CalMatters contacted the real estate firm that owned her apartment complex, the eviction was postponed. But that decision was the landlord’s — not the sheriff’s.
Nearly two weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered 40 million Californians to “shelter in place” to avoid spreading COVID-19, and just days after he issued an executive order declaring a “statewide eviction moratorium,” some sheriffs’ departments across California were still forcibly removing or planning to forcibly remove renters like Waldman. Their evictions are not protected by state or local emergency measures because they are not directly related to financial fallout from the coronavirus.
Kimball Tirey and St. John, a law firm that provides legal services for landlords across the state and has been tracking changes to local eviction rules, could confirm to CalMatters that only 27 of California’s 58 county sheriffs’ departments — the law enforcement agency responsible for lockouts — had stopped them as of late last week.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which declined to comment for this story, is still performing “writs” — legalese for court-ordered lockouts — for eviction cases in its queue. Fresno County sheriff’s deputies completed 20 lockouts in the last week and a half before clearing their backlog April 1, according to department spokesperson Tony Botti. Imperial County sheriff’s deputies just finished their evictions caseload two days ago.
“We hope they saw this coming and maybe already have a plan in place to seek resources that might help them,” said Botti.
While tenant rights groups say sheriffs and local governments can and should stop lockouts immediately, they lay much of the blame for the continued evictions on Newsom. They criticize his efforts to protect renters as limited, confusing and insufficient.
“We need leadership,” said Madeline Howard, a senior attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “We need the governor to step in and do a real moratorium, because this is happening, people are being kicked out when they’re being told to shelter-in-place.”
The Newsom administration did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
A moratorium…with many exceptions
Waldman spent the past few days scrambling to prepare for the lockout, leaving and returning to the Boulder Creek Apartments complex despite the rising number of coronavirus infections in Riverside County and its warnings to wear a mask whenever venturing outside.
She made a half hour drive to Yucaipa — where the virus broke out recently in a nursing home — to have her father’s tax return prepared in the vain hope a refund could forestall the eviction. Waldman also made trips back and forth to a self-storage complex to drop off boxes.
The stress has weighed on her father, who has memory problems.
“He’s gotten up like 20 times already today, asking me, ‘What about this? What about that?’” she said. “It’s almost like he’s forgotten everything, he barely knows me.”
Waldman described herself as surprised when she received the lockout notice last week. She says she had agreed to a court settlement with her landlord — an Orange County-based investment firm called Raintree Partners — that she would move out in the near future. But considering the circumstances, she thought she would be given more time.
“I was shocked,” said Waldman, who relies on Social Security disability benefits for income. “I was absolutely horrified because I heard they weren’t doing any lockouts.”
On paper, Newsom’s most recent executive order on evictions does prohibit lockouts through the end of May — but only for cases where renters can demonstrate they have been financially impacted by the virus, either because of layoffs, reduced work hours or the need to take care of a child or family member.
Evictions that have already made their way through the court system — for a missed March 1 rent payment, for example — are not banned.
Neither are evictions for other reasons, like having people in your apartment not on your lease, causing a nuisance, or when a landlord decides to move back into a unit.
In the absence of stronger statewide action from Newsom, tenant advocates have petitioned the Attorney General, the statewide sheriffs’ association and individual sheriff’s departments to stop lockouts, arguing they unnecessarily pose a risk to public health.
“The sheriff is going from one low-income area to another low-income area, so they could be getting (the virus) or passing it,” said Ernie Reguly, staff attorney with Riverside Legal Aid. “It is inconsistent with the governor’s stay-at-home order.”
Once a lockout notice has been posted to a tenant’s door, some renters can request an emergency stay from a judge to delay the eviction. Renters have to pay for the extra time they’re asking for.
Some cities and counties have imposed their own eviction moratoriums that go further than Newsom’s order, banning evictions and lockouts not related to the economic impact of COVID-19.
Additionally, some sheriff’s departments took initiative even without clear state or local directives. Sgt. Lydia Montoya, who oversees evictions in the Kings County Sheriff’s Department, pushed her department to stop lockouts immediately after Newsom’s shelter-in-place directive on March 19.
“I understand there are landlords and owners out there that are financially suffering because these tenants weren’t kicked out,” said Montoya. “But the long term damage of these people going out and looking for new apartments, or moving in with another family member, the potential contamination with COVID — the danger is real.”
The landlord perspective
Debra Carlton, executive vice president for the landlord lobbying group the California Apartment Association, said for the most part landlords support the spirit of Newsom’s executive order.
“He’s trying to balance the challenges we all face,” said Carlton. “If it’s not related to COVID, we think a tenant should be paying, and I think that’s what he’s trying to say and what he did say with that executive order.”
Newsom’s executive order does not free pandemic-affected residents from paying rent; it only extends the time they have to respond to an eviction lawsuit from 5 days to 65 days.
Carlton said her organization also has recommended landlords be flexible with tenants when it comes to missed rent payments, late fees and other issues in coming months. She said landlord attorneys are reporting a drop in activity since the pandemic broke.
Annette Thurman, senior director of asset management at Raintree Partners, the firm that owns Waldman’s apartment, said she was surprised to learn of an eviction lockout happening on one of the firm’s properties.
“Home comes first, and we have been focused since late February, when we first saw potential signs of hardship on the horizon, on developing and instituting internal policies to ensure our residents have a safe and comfortable roof over their head during this challenging time,” Thurman said in an emailed statement.
Thurman said that weeks ago Raintree had directed its property management company to postpone all eviction lockouts until the statewide state of emergency had been lifted. She declined to share any emails or documentation to that effect.
Renter groups see other flaws in Newsom eviction ban
Beyond the many other types of evictions not subject to Newsom’s “moratorium,” tenant lawyers argue the wording of the executive order is deeply flawed and impractical.
“This makes it worse,” said Reguly, the Riverside Legal Aid attorney. “This makes my job harder to help my client.”
On paper, Newsom’s executive order extends the amount of time renters have to respond to eviction lawsuits to 65 days, if the renter informs a landlord within a week of a missed rent payment that they are financially suffering from COVID-19.
But landlords will still be allowed to post 3-day or quit notices on renters’ doors after a missed April 1 rent payment, leading tenant groups to fear renters unaware of their rights will simply move out. Landlords will also still be allowed to file an eviction lawsuit against renters if the local courts are accepting them, and it’s unclear how courts will distinguish which renters should receive a longer period to respond.
Most galling to tenant attorneys, Newsom’s executive order does not allow tenants to claim financial hardship from COVID-19 as a defense against an eviction case — even if the tenant can come up with the rent later on. So despite the extended response time, they’ll still lose and eventually have to move out.
Tenant advocates fear a flood of evictions once Newsom’s order expires at the end of May.
A group of state Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation to toughen eviction protections, but those bills are on hold until the Legislature returns, no sooner than April 13.
Today Waldman is thankful she gets to stay in the apartment for the time being.
“Oh my God, oh my God, I’m so relieved,” she said.